During just about any EPHS girls’ volleyball home game, there is a group of male students standing and cheering on the girls as they play their games.
For some, it just may be a fun chance to see some live sports. But for others, it was an inspiration to get out on the floor themselves.
During the past three years, boys’ volleyball in both Eden Prairie and Minnesota has continued to grow. That has led to the Eagles starting a team and in 2021, taking second in the third-ever boys’ state volleyball tournament.
Making it happen
While girls’ volleyball has been a mainstay in the Minnesota high school sports scene since the 1970s, boys’ volleyball has never made movement in this state. That’s not the case in other states such as Illinois and California, where the sport is on a similar level to the female version.
In 2018, boys’ volleyball began its push in Minnesota. A league, not yet sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), started up. That first season did not feature a squad from Eden Prairie.
A year later, the Eagles were soon part of the boys’ volleyball movement in this state. They were starting a team.
At the same time, Steph Chapek had been hired by the EP volleyball association to start up a beach volleyball program. The EP resident expressed her desire to start a boys team. She eventually took on the role of the team’s inaugural head coach.
“We had a lot of senior superfans that just loved volleyball and wanted to try it,” Chapek said. “They just came out having never played before and fell in love with the sport.”
While also leading the beach volleyball effort in Eden Prairie, Chapek also had previous experience as the varsity girls’ coach in Edina. Though the male and female version of the sport hold the same rules, there were plenty of differences Chapek encountered.
“The boys had so much enthusiasm to play,” Chapek said. “They did a lot of non-traditional volleyball moves. It was kind of fun to go out and try and teach them as much as we could as fast as we could.”
The first season
In its first season as a program, Eden Prairie finished 3-7 and sat in the middle of the Western Conference. The Eagles failed to qualify for the second-ever boys’ volleyball state tournament.
“Our guys were a year behind everyone else,” Chapek said. “They had to catch up as quickly as possible.”
The lost season
In the fall and winter of the 2019-20 school year, participation and excitement for EP’s second boys’ volleyball season was ramping up. The team was holding open gyms throughout the fall and winter as preparations began.
Then, however, things changed. The pandemic shut down high school sports across Minnesota. That included boys’ volleyball.
“The team was super excited to play that second season,” Chapek said. “They were really bummed to lose a whole season last year. It was really disappointing for them.”
Getting back on the court
Once the news came down that the 2020 season was a no-go, the players continued to prepare. This time, it was for the 2021 season.
The team began holding open gyms again this past fall, following COVID-19 guidelines. Though some high school sports saw numbers drop due to the pandemic, that was not the case for the EP boys’ volleyball program. During the 2021 season, there were 34 players scattered across four teams.
“We got a ton of new kids from different groups of friends into it,” Chapek said. “Our numbers are up, which is a little bit surprising.”
Some of the players improved through extra practice and also via club volleyball. The non-high school volleyball season is a mainstay on the girls side in Minnesota but is still coming to life on the boys’ side. MN Select Volleyball, a club program based in the state, has started boys’ teams. Chapek said five or six of her players have gone to club volleyball to hone their skills in the offseason.
Besides club volleyball, many of the players practice on the beach courts at Lake Riley. Beyond high school, there is a group of middle schoolers who practice nearly every day during the season at Starring Lake. This is all run by the players themselves.
Making a run
The 2021 boys’ volleyball season in Minnesota began amidst the COVID-19. This meant Eden Prairie was in its second season of competition in boys’ volleyball.
“We were geared up to have a good team,” Chapek said. “We’ve had more time in the gym with open gyms.”
In its second full season as a team, the Eagles did not waste any time getting going as they rattled off nine consecutive wins in conference play.
Unfortunately for EP, the team found itself stumbling to the end of the regular season with consecutive losses to Edina and Shakopee. Still, the Eagles finished tied atop the Southwest Conference with the Sabers as EP posted a 9-2 record.
Eden Prairie’s record was good enough to get the Eagles into the boys’ volleyball state tournament for the first time. EP garnered one of the tournament’s top seeds, which took place June 16-17 at Shakopee High School.
Going up against Centennial in their state tournament debut, the Eagles stymied the Cougars in straight sets. Hours later, EP once again moved on to the state semifinal match with a sweep of Roseville.
With just one match separating the Eagles from a spot in the state title match, they faced Blaine. Once again, EP failed to lose a single set and advanced to face Andover. The Huskies, much like the Eagles, had yet to lose a set in the state tournament.
The two squads met in Shakopee as two of the top teams in the state. EP was off to a strong start with a 27-25 win in the first set. From there, the Eagles failed to win a set as Andover captured the state crown.
A long-term look
Though EP did not capture its first state championship, the future looks bright not only for the Eagles but boys’ volleyball in Minnesota as a whole in the push to become a sanctioned high school sport in Minnesota continues.
The growth among the sport in EP has dropped down to the youth level. There is a group of middle-school aged boys who practice at Starring Lake each day during the Spring and run practices on their own, according to Chapek.
The future of the sport relies in large part on the MSHSL making boys’ volleyball a sanctioned sport. That has yet to happen. The most recent vote by the league came in May when it decided not to sanction the sport.
“There were a lot of reasons it didn’t happen,” Chapek said. “It was extremely disappointing. I think it will pass eventually. The momentum is growing.”
The momentum can be seen by the growing numbers of boys getting involved from the middle school level up. There’s also the support from the EP Volleyball Association.
“I think it’s going to keep growing,” Chapek said. “I think it’s going to keep expanding here. The association is very supportive and wants to see this keep going and growing.”
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